Gauss-Telegraph: How To… Improve your language skills
by Lena Heinecke
There are many good reasons to learn a foreign language from scratch or to improve it further, be it because it makes studying easier, as preparation for a vacation, because you want to refresh your knowledge from school or because you don’t want to forget the language after returning from your semester abroad. Perhaps you have recently finished a language course or are in a relationship with a person from another country. In these situations, some people don’t know how to start, others are overwhelmed by the variety of options. This “How-To”-article is therefore based on my own experiences in learning the Chinese language and will deal with the different options that can be used for practicing languages.
When you start learning a new language, I think a language course offers a very good base. This is especially true for people who like to understand the logic behind a language and learn in a structured way as well as for all people who give up quickly when learning independently. By taking part in a language course, there are fixed course times, regular feedback on your learning progress and learning goals that build on each other in a pedagogically useful way, and you can also learn the basic structure of a language. (By the way, language courses at the Language Center of the TU Braunschweig are free of charge for all students). The disadvantage is that the pace cannot be determined individually. If you don’t want or can’t attend a language course, but still need structure, you can buy a textbook and follow the order given in it or use apps like Babbel (monthly fee). However, speaking practice often comes too short when learning on your own and you sometimes have too high demands on yourself.
It is very efficient to attend such a language course directly abroad and perhaps combine it with an internship, a semester abroad or a vacation. According to my personal experience, a stay abroad (i.e. in the country whose language you want to learn) is the most successful way to learn a language because you have daily contact with the language and therefore learn passively. For example, while shopping in the supermarket, you talk to the staff, read the German product names and listen to conversations of other customers. When learning Chinese, for example, it was always a great motivating factor for me that I could read more Chinese characters in the subway every day and understood the announcements at least partially.
For those who have at least a basic knowledge of the language, a language course is only one of many options. There are suitable learning options for all learning goals: Reading books and newspaper articles trains reading comprehension, whereas those who want to train their listening comprehension can listen to music or watch videos in the respective language. Videos help me a lot to improve my feeling for the language, i.e. in which situation a certain expression is used and how it is emphasized. This works just as well with films as with videos on YouTube or apps like TikTok (for Chinese Douyin) and the like.
My favourite method of language learning is speaking (or writing) with native speakers. When you return from abroad, you should definitely keep in touch with your friends from there and for example chat or skype with them etc. If you are abroad, there are many different ways to make new friends, for example, at the weekly Gauss Friends events, through sports or by participating in a tandem program: Two participants each learn the mother tongue of the other person by speaking language A for half of the time and language B for the other half of the time. In this way, both can exchange ideas about their cultures and learn the language in a relaxed way. Many universities offer tandem programs, and there are countless apps like HelloTalk where you can find tandem partners. The tandem partner I met over four years ago at a tandem program in Shanghai has become my best friend and now even lives here in Braunschweig. In all conversations with native speakers, the following applies: Don’t be afraid of mistakes! Your counterpart will surely understand you even if you have conjugated the verb incorrectly.
My feeling is that without a language course you learn more slowly, but you get to know more “realistic” ways of expressing yourself, i.e. you express yourself more like a native speaker and speak more fluently in general by regularly using the language. Various exercises on grammar and new vocabulary should be given special attention in this independent way of learning. For vocabulary, it is a good idea to write down and translate unfamiliar words that come to your attention in conversations or videos and to learn them in the same way as you would otherwise learn vocabulary (e.g. with flashcards, example sentences, word nets, sticking notes with the words around the house, etc.)
All the methods mentioned in the second half of the article are of course also recommended for beginners, but in this case they should be used as a supplement to the language course and better not on their own.
To motivate yourself, you can write a short text, make a voice recording or similar before you start and after a few months of learning, which you can then compare with each other as a “before and after” to become aware of your own progress.
So now it’s time to think about your goals, choose the appropriate method(s) and then just get started. Good luck!